Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Rest Days Make Exercise Sustainable for the Long Term
It’s not necessary or sustainable for most people to workout every single day. Instead, you can aim for getting some kind of movement every day, and keep workouts to 3-5 days per week.
Health benefits of daily movement include better sleep, lowered mortality, better mitochondrial function, and balanced blood sugar.
Working out more than five times per week at a moderate-to-high intensity increases your risk of injury without providing significantly greater benefit.
Most research agrees that total time spent exercising per week is more important than how many days you work out, with an optimal goal being 150 minutes per week.
It’s easy to look at your favorite fitness influencer and think: should I be working out more? Whether it’s for aesthetics, weight loss, muscle gain, or other reasons, we can all get sucked into the idea that more is better when it comes to exercise, and working out every day will help you achieve your fitness goals faster.
But this isn’t always the case: in fact, we can pretty definitively say that working out every day at a moderate-intensity to high intensity is not sustainable for your long-term health and well-being. And whatever other goals you have for your exercise regime, you should always keep your health in mind alongside them to prevent injury and burnout.
In this article, I’ll dive into the question, “should I workout every day,” and differentiate between “working out every day” and “daily movement.” Hint: one is a lot more sustainable than the other. We’ll also look into the different health benefits of exercise and how often you really need to work out to achieve those benefits. Good news, it’s probably less time than you think!
Should Everyone Work Out Every Day?
First thing’s first: working out every single day is not going to be achievable or sustainable for most people. And there’s no need to feel like you have to. Even Olympic athletes need recovery days to rest and make sure they don’t injure themselves.
I would say, however, that there is a difference between “working out every day” and “moving every day” — daily movement is a much more sustainable and healthy recommendation for just about everyone, barring individuals with certain health conditions and/or mobility issues. [1, 2]
What does daily movement look like? In general, low-intensity, low-impact cardio exercise. Brisk walking, yoga, light biking or even jogging are good examples. Light strength training exercises using body weight or light weightlifting could also work depending on your baseline fitness level. We don’t want to be pushing our muscles and heart rate to the limit every single day, though we do want more moderate to high intensity exercise a few times a week to promote muscle growth and support healthy aging.
Remember that everyday activities also count as daily movement. This could look like cleaning your house, playing with the dog or the kids outside, shoveling your driveway, gardening, or yard maintenance. You don’t always have to set aside extra time for a walk or a bike ride if you can get some movement in doing something you were already going to do anyway. It still counts!
Daily Exercise Benefits
As long as you aren’t overdoing it or getting injured, there are some well-researched benefits of daily, low-intensity exercise. The evidence supports the idea that some level of activity every day provides health benefits including improved sleep, reduced mortality, balanced blood sugar, and better mitochondrial function [3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8].
For example, a 2022 analysis of 15 studies tracked 47,000 participants for 7 years, monitoring their step-count. Those who had higher daily step counts (10,000 steps per day) had a 53% decreased risk of all-cause mortality . Another study found that including regular daily exercise helped adults sleep 19% better .
However, most reputable sources agree that total time per week is more important than exercise frequency, and they recommend 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week of moderate-to-vigorous types of exercise. If you’ve ever heard of training zones, this would be akin to a zone 2 or zone 3 workout. If using your heart rate to gauge your exercise progress seems useful to you, consider getting more familiar with zone training. But you don’t have to track your heart rate or calorie burn if it doesn’t feel helpful, as time spent is a great way to track your movement.
Research shows that working out 3–5x per week at moderate-to-vigorous intensities can offer the general benefits of exercise, prevent injuries, and help prevent exercise burnout.
That said, let’s take a deeper look at exercise frequency for a few specific outcomes: mental health, reducing cancer risk, and cognitive function.
Exercise Frequency for Mental Health Benefits
A 2022 analysis with 1,331 adolescents found that regular exercise improved depressive symptoms in those with and without clinical depression. Optimal benefits were seen at 3–4x per week, suggesting that daily exercise may not be required to experience the benefits.
The optimal time was only 30 minutes of exercise per session in adolescents with clinical depression, but that time increased in non clinically-depressed adolescents with depressive symptoms . Therefore, exercise time may need to be increased for those who don’t meet the criteria for major depressive disorder, but we can still conclude that at least 30 minutes per session will provide some benefits.
Exercise Frequency for Reducing Cancer Risk
A meta-analysis of ten observational studies studied the effects of exercise frequency on the risk of developing liver cancer. They found that the risk was 23% lower with 2–3 hours/week of moderate physical activity, compared to exercising less than two hours per week . Three or more hours per week of moderate exercise reduced the risk by only another 3%, indicating that at least two hours per week is enough to get most of the benefit. Increasing the intensity of your exercise can reduce the risk markedly further.
Exercise Frequency for Improving Cognitive Function
A 2022 analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials with 1,280 older adults found that exercise at least three days per week improved their cognitive function and ability to perform daily activities . We also know generally that exercise increases the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a molecule that assists in your brain’s ability to process new information and create lasting changes related to learning and memory . More BDNF, better cognitive function.
Risks of Over-Exercising
The primary risks of over-exercising are injury from fatigue, muscle soreness, repetitive stress, or not recovering between sessions. We don’t have specific research to reference for when injuries are more likely to occur with continuous (daily) exercise, but if you’re doing regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise, it generally makes sense to take two rest days per week, especially if you aren’t going to see further health benefits.
Working out more than five times per week at a moderate-to-high intensity increases your risk of injury without providing significantly greater benefit .
There are other risks to over-exercising too. Research shows that over-training puts excess stress on the body and can lead to increased cortisol levels which can break down the lining of the digestive system and disrupt the gut flora [13, 14, 15, 16]. Additionally, overtraining can lead to cardiac abnormalities and disrupted sleep [17, 18].
Many of us are compelled to go full speed from the starting line when it comes to our health — it can be tempting to jump in and exercise every single day. But health benefits are only going to occur when that exercise is sustainable, so your routine needs to accommodate fluctuations and rest.
If you still want to maintain some activity on your rest days, walking, stretching, or any other gentle movement is perfect for that. These activities can help keep you accountable and make you feel like you’re still sticking to a regular routine without overtaxing your body.
It’s important to remember that besides taking regular breaks, longer breaks in your exercise routine are bound to happen, due to acute illness, injury, or other life stressors. That’s okay, and actually, it might be beneficial for us to break out of our regular workout routine for some time and reevaluate our patterns and needs when it comes to exercise.
What is the Shortest Time I Can Exercise and Still See Some Benefits?
When it comes to exercise, anything you can do is better than nothing. That might mean just 15, 10, or even five minutes. We’re all busy with work, parenting, socializing, and hobbies, and it’s easy to put exercise at the bottom of the list. But even if you’re only active for a few minutes, you’re still training your brain to create the habit of movement, and you’ll gradually progress to longer times.
To make getting started easier, you can try some habit-forming tricks like “habit pairing” or “habit stacking”. Habit pairing is taking a less-desirable habit and pairing it with a more desirable one. Maybe you go for a walk when you listen to your favorite podcast. Habit stacking is associating one habit you already do with starting a new one. This could look like using the signal that when you’re done brushing your teeth it’s time to stretch for 5 minutes. While there’s a lot that goes into creating healthy habits like exercise, a little change can go a long way.
Fortunately, we also have clinical evidence that short durations of exercise can have noticeable health benefits. A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis of five randomized clinical trials found evidence that aerobic exercise (cycling, running, and circuit training) for at least 15 minutes 2–3 times a week led to significantly less fatigue .
This suggests that even short bursts of exercise can improve mitochondrial function, raising energy levels and reducing fatigue. Since mitochondrial dysfunction at some level may be at the root of all chronic disease , it stands to reason that even 30–45 minutes of exercise per week can be beneficial for your long-term health.
Exercise and Rest Go Hand in Hand
While it’s a great idea to get some kind of movement into your daily routine, remember that rest is also necessary for your health, especially if you are working out at a moderate to vigorous level several times per week. There will also be times where your body simply needs more recovery time than your regular fitness routine calls for, and that’s okay too. You can always reevaluate your routine and work your way back to about 150 minutes of exercise per week for the most health benefits.
If you want to read more about the intersection between nutrition, exercise, and gut health, check out my book Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
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